Oscar Bluemner 1867 —1938
Until the first decade of the 20th century, art, whether drawing, painting or sculpture, was always essentially pictorial, and was based on themes and compositions representing real world ideas. Bluemner is considered one of the most influential figures of the American Modernist era.
The term Modernism commonly applies to those forward-looking architects,
Designers and artisans who, from the 1880’s on forged a new and diverse
vocabulary principally to escape the Historicism, the tyranny of previous historical styles.
-The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Impressed by European contemporaries such as Cezanne and Van Gogh, Kandinsky, and Gauguin Bluemner’s highly personal and boldly colored landscapes shocked the New York art scene in the early 1900s. With his revolutionary ideas and eloquent voice, Oscar Bluemner became part of a group of artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley, among others, who essentially brought modernist art to life in America. Bluemner formulated a distinctive style comprised of architectonic forms and expressive hues. The strength of his work earned him representation in the landmark Armory Show of 1913, and a one-person exhibition at 291 in 1915.
Oscar Bluemner was born near Hanover in Germany in 1867. He was trained as an architect in Berlin following the architectural careers of his father and grandfather. Along with architecture, he studied painting at the Royal Academy of Design in Berlin. In 1892 he won a medal at the Royal Academy of Design in Berlin where he studied painting and architecture. Dissatisfied with the restrictive aesthetic policies of Emperor Wilhelm II’s government, Bluemner left for America that same year. Before departing Berlin for the United States where he hoped for an architectural commission with the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago, he completed one public building: a post office.
He did win a competition in 1900 for the design of the courthouse in Bronx, New York, but his partner stole the commission from him. Eventually he won a lawsuit against the partner, but by that time he had turned to painting and away from architecture. Bluemner first adopted the impressionist style and urban subject matter of Maurice Prendergast, but after a trip through Europe to Berlin, Paris, Southern France, and Italy in 1912, where he was exposed to the possibilities of expressionism; his style changed drastically to that which was geometric and reflected Cubism and Futurism. His very personal expressionist style relied heavily upon brilliant reds, blues and greens, and like the precisionists, his subjects were industrial buildings, mostly in New Jersey, but his treatment combined linearity and jagged forms in an explosion of color totally unique, to Bluemner. Bluemner was fascinated with the formal, emotional, and spiritual qualities of strong color.
Bluemner was one of the giants of early American modernism. In 1913, he showed five paintings at the Armory Show and, for a period of time, was one of the artists who attracted the attention of Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz gave him one-man exhibitions in 1915 and 1928. His work was well received by the critics, especially when he was endorsed and promoted by Alfred Stieglitz. Tragically, as was the case of so many of the early moderns, his work did not sell well. After his wife’s untimely death, sick and poverty-stricken, in 1938, he committed suicide in Braintree, Massachusetts where he had lived.
In October of 2005 a major Oscar Florianus Bluemner retrospective exhibition opened at the Whitney Museum of American art. Works by the artist are in 26 museums including: Addison Gallery of American Art; Albright Knox Art Gallery; Allen Memorial Art Museum; Amon Carter Museum of Art; Arkansas Arts Center; Cantor Arts Center, Stanford; Chrysler Museum of Art; Frederick R Weisman Art Museum; Minnesota Museum of American Art; Hunter Museum of American Art; Michael C Carlos Museum; Museum of Art at Brigham Young University; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Museum of the City of New York; Neuberger Museum of Art; New Jersey State Museum; Phoenix Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Columbus Museum of Art; The Emerson Gallery, Hamilton NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Newark Museum; The Phillips Collection, Washington DC; University of Wyoming Art Museum; Whistler House Museum of Art, Lowell MA and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
According to Bluemner’s color system, which assigned physical and emotional properties to specific hues, red was of primary importance as representing “power, vitality, energy, life…passion, struggle.” He regarded color as a universal language akin to music that, properly orchestrated, stirs all regions of the psyche.
Around 1927, Bluemner was working to develop a more vivid and durable watercolor
medium capable of serving as a “less cumbersome alternative to oils.”
Jeffrey R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991):
Hayes considers those South Braintree works as “the third and final phase” of
Bluemner’s career and one in which he launches into “full application of his theories that challenged both vanguard and popular standards.”
- Oscar Bluemner, My Own History, Painting Diary, April 21, 1918,
Bluemner Papers, Archives of American Art (339: 552),
translated by Jeffrey R. Hayes.
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